Fringe Reviews: Research reveals gender bias across leading publications

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I was unable to see any Fringe shows this year due to a crippling bout of agoraphobia . I was miserable to be missing out, and by my third month of hermit-like existence I was desperate to participate in some way, so idly decided to tally up a few star ratings to see if men and women were rated equally . It’ll kill an hour or so, I thought, and in any case, I was running short on episodes of Undercover Boss.

What followed turned into a two week full-time project, during which I had to teach myself first Excel and then (in a late realisation) basic maths.

What follows are my findings. It’s a long read, but don’t worry, there’s pictures.

*****

Review stars, eh? What a wonderful, unbiased way of summarising the artistic originality and accomplishment of an act. In the Edinburgh sea of nearly 4000 comedy shows, the 1*- 5* rating system is an easy way of separating the wheat from the chaff, and letting punters know the best shows out there.

Or is it?

During August, I’ve lurked like a benign spectre on various Facebook groups for performers and have seen the same themes crop up again and again. Gender bias. This publication only awards 1*s to women. That reviewer only rates men. This reviewer reckons a woman discussing her fertility is somehow too niche for public consumption: two stars.

Of course, it would be unnatural if there weren’t a small punnet of sour grapes attached to some of these remarks; a comic probably won’t ask a reviewer to their wedding if they’ve said their show’s a hackneyed pile of garbage.

But individual beefs aside, I wanted to know if there was any truth in the rumours of gender bias in the awarding of stars, so I decided to crunch the numbers to ascertain if bias really existed, and who the worst offenders were.

In all, I looked at 1530 reviews across 12 publications: Fest, The Skinny, Broadway Baby, Ed Fest Mag, The Wee Review, The Scotsman, One 4 Review, Chortle, Fringe Guru, The List, The Telegraph and The Guardian. Although the latter two had small sample sizes, their ratings mean a lot so were worthy of inclusion. (I’m sure I missed some important publications, and it would help me greatly if you could let me know in the comments, just in case I decide to embark upon this foolhardy enterprise again next year).

There are significant limitations to my research. The data were collected on 24 August before all publications has submitted their reviews, and is therefore not entirely complete (this was the only way to analyse the data before the Fringe was a distant memory). I had to make not-wholly-scientific decisions about who I included; although I only analysed the ‘comedy’ category, I had to make judgement calls about large mixed-gender troupes (I left them out) and sketch groups where the ratio is two male one female and a female director (thanks Geins) or vice versa. A serious criticism of the research is that it operates on the gender binary – I had to guess gender from the artist’s name; failing that from their photo; and if I was really stuck then the pronouns used in the show blurb, so anyone who chose to identify as non-binary would likely have been noticed but the research doesn’t have the capacity to account for this. Finally, the research ignores intersectional axes of oppression such as disability, sexuality, race, religion and class. Although these are big issues and shouldn’t be ignored, it would have been impossible and foolish to try and make judgement calls about these signifiers based on the little information I had.

One factor I was really shocked by is that the Edinburgh Fringe don’t collate any information whatsoever about the demographic of participants – and this would be so easy to do, since performers must complete some sort of registration – how hard would it be to include an equal opportunities monitoring form? When I spoke to the press office to see if they held data on the gender split of comics at the Fringe, my question was blithely laughed off with the claim that ‘the Fringe is open to everyone’.

Yes, but so is Eton. Oh, unless you’re a woman (amirite Lou Sanders?). It seems to me that the Fringe is missing a big trick here, and as it becomes increasingly crowded with performers and expensive to play, it seems likely that the most privileged groups will dominate and elitism will prevail. Equalities monitoring wouldn’t stop that, but it would give a jumping off point to understand how structural inequalities are preventing certain groups from participating in this ostensibly ‘open’ event.

Notwithstanding the limitations of the data, here’s what I discovered.

There are more male than female comics performing so you can’t compare like for like. The publications I looked at reviewed an average of 69% men to 31% women, so star ratings were weighted to reflect this. Here’s how all stars awarded looked across all publications.

Control Data

Looks pretty unbiased, right? With the exception of the male weighting towards 1* reviews (which is a little misleading as the sample size of 1* reviews is tiny – many publications don’t give any at all).

But although the overall picture looks benign, once I began to break down star ratings to each publication, a different picture emerged.

In order to ascertain how fairly stars were awarded to men and women, I calculated the average gender split reviewed by each publication, and then worked out what percentage of stars were awarded to men and women in each ratings category. So, as an example, The Wee Review reviewed 66% men and 34% women, yet awarded 93% of their five star ratings to men and the remaining 7% to women, so it’s clear to see that there is some bias at play here. However, the same publication may not replicate the same level of bias across all star categories – for instance, in the case of this publication the 4* awards were tipped in favour of women, and the 3* awards were fairly even.

It’s not an exact science.

Wee Review

I’d gone in, somewhat naively, expecting bias to be screaming itself loud and clear from the rooftops, and yet the findings were nowhere near that simple.

There was only one publication – The Scotsman – that indicated bias in favour of men across the board, awarding them far more 5* and 4* ratings and reserving the 1*s and 2*s for the women. I spoke to the Arts Editor of this magazine for comment, however he simply informed me that his reviewers were all unbiased and highly experienced thank-you-very-much and assured me my remarks would be borne in mind at next year’s festival. So much, so revolutionary.

Scotsman

By contrast, I spoke to Ben Venables, editor of The Skinny, which was much more favourable to women in awarding star ratings across the board. Ben explained there was a clear ethos in place about criteria for reviewing in general; schedules were assigned in advance and at random so reviewers could not choose ‘favourite’ performers – a reviewer from a different publication (who asked not to be named) told me that it’s commonplace for people to choose who they review. The Skinny placed an emphasis on seeing acts debuting the Fringe for the first time, and there was a strict criteria for allocation of stars, with very few being given out at both ends of the spectrum. Even more hearteningly, Ben showed an awareness that even where they were getting it right on areas like gender, their reviewers still tended to meet a certain age, race and class demographic. He recognised the imperfections in their system, which is at least a start. He also told me that they vet potential reviewers. Anyone with the attitude that ‘women aren’t funny’ never gets through the door.

Skinny

Of the other publications I reviewed, it was hard to draw any concrete conclusions as each one painted a unique picture. It did seem as if more 5* awards were going to men with the notable exception of Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Hannah Gadsby. I was left wondering had she not performed the festival this year, if women would have been represented much at all at the 5* mark.

Here’s the rest of the publications broken down.

Telegraph

 

One4Review

List

Guardian

Fringe guru

Fest

Ed Fest Mag

Chortle

Broadway Baby

Telegraph

Why is any of this relevant? As each performer tells themselves for three weeks, ‘reviews don’t matter.’ Except they do. The comic Athena Kugblenu explained to me how she hates the review system, yet ‘I want the 4* and 5* as much as the next comic, not for the endorsement, but for the marketing and PR.’ And as Edinburgh stalwart Kate Smurthwaite explains, ‘Anything less than a 4/5 star is of no use cos you can’t put 3* on your posters.’ I spoke to one experienced reviewer who hypothesised that reviewers simply aren’t going to enough female shows. Proportional representation is all very well but because female comics are still in the minority, their work is still viewed as marginal which means reviewers are less likely to award the more prestigious star ratings. As encapsulated in the comment that Sara Pascoe’s material was ‘too tamponny’; when male comics talk about their lives it’s comedy. When female comics talk about their lives, their shows are described as focusing only on ‘women’s issues’ or pigeonholed as feminist, as if feminism was somehow a bad thing rather than just a wish for gender equality and an end to young girls having their genitals mutilated. Something one hopes we would all strive for, whatever our gender.

Although the project above focused on numbers rather than qualitative analysis, there’s no doubt that the use of language in male vs female reviews is an area ripe for research. As a little test I decided to peek at the content of the reviews of Sara Pascoe’s acclaimed show Lads Lads Lads and the 2017 Comedy Award winner John Robins’ show The Darkness of Robins. I chose these shows because I’ve seen them both, and although the content of the shows isn’t identical, they were both written on the back of their breakup in late 2016.

The reviews I looked at were from the Guardian, the Standard, the Skinny, the Scotsman and Chortle, and all awarded 4*. Of the five reviews of Pascoe’s show, she was referred to as endearing twice, vulnerable once and ‘oversharing about sex’ – presumably because she had the temerity to mention masturbation – a theme that’s rarely absent from most male standups’ staple material. Robin’s show, despite containing several depictions of sex with his ex partner and a whole bit about women’s pubic hair, did not attract any comment on the topic of sex whatsoever. Adjectives attached to Robins’ show included ‘extremely forthright’, ‘high-powered, front foot delivery’ and ‘an eloquent howl of rage’. The assertive adjectives attached to Robins’ reviews are ironic if only because in both Pascoe and Robins’ depiction of their break-up, she is undeniably the one who is taking it better.

The most telling observation, however, came from the three out of five reviewers who commented on Pascoe’s stage attire – a sparkly bodysuit and fishnets. This might be understandable were it not for the fact the John Robins went on stage every night donning a tailor-made bright yellow leather replica Freddie Mercury jacket. Not. A. Mention. [Edit – apparently John ditched the jacket after the first two previews so this isn’t an entirely fair comparison. Thanks to commenter Pete for pointing this out].

Kate Smurthwaite provides some examples of gendered reviews from her own experience.

My first Chortle review call[ed] me “too alpha female”. My second says sometime I make a political point instead of a joke which is TRUE but that’s the style of my comedy and no-one complains when Mark Steel does it. 

We also need to take into account the structural bias behind the scenes before shows even make it to the review stage. Smurthwaite claims that bias amongst venue managers means women end up with less favourable rooms and slots, and a poor slot with a barely warmed up or hungover audience, taking in their first show of the day, can have a devastating effect on reviews.

Conclusions?

Mark Twain was right when he talked about lies, damn lies, and statistics. I embarked upon this project looking for easy (or at least clear-cut) answers, and aside from the fairly unequivocal findings of the Scotsman, the results turned out to be a little more complicated.

It has certainly given me food for thought about how we can build on this information in years to come, and I hope that comics of all genders will feed in with their own experiences. I’ve set up a Facebook group for this purpose: Edinburgh Fringe Ratings.

Female (and many male) comics don’t need to wade through a 2000 word blog to know there’s gender bias in comedy. I just fancied drawing a few graphs to illustrate it, and as Stewart Lee’s apocryphal taxi driver once remarked “Well. You can prove anything with facts”.

For the full report and datasets, visit http://wp.me/p8JV3i-dU.

I welcome your comments and notification of any errors via this blog. Please bear in mind I’m an amateur unpaid blogger, so by all means tell me I’m wrong but please do so with respect. If you like this article you can help by sharing it on your social media.

Edit: Quite a few commenters are asking why I didn’t take into account the gender of the researcher. Here’s my response:

I consciously didn’t analyse the gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age or class demographic of the researchers  because i thought it was a red herring. There’s no obligation for women to support women and women are just as subject to the patriarchy as men. They’ve seen more male comics in more prestigious venues/media slots etc. They’re sitting in an audience of people who may well have the embedded beliefs that men will automatically be funny, women have to prove they will be, and god forbid they should hear a mention of ovaries. This of course impacts on the performance, audience reaction and subsequent impression left upon the reviewer. 

I do think there is space for [analysis of the reviewers], perhaps as part of a larger piece of research that looks at organisational culture. I was struck by the comments from the Scotsman that their reviewers were well established and experienced, and the Skinny that they tended to have a high turnover of younger reviewers. I think these factors surely also have a bearing as much as the researcher’s gender. 

 

 

 

 

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Opinion: Make ’em Laugh? Give ’em a Chance!

Host the Week
Photo: British Comedy Guide

The new topical comedy/improv show ‘Host the Week’ has been pulled after just one episode, Chortle reports today.

Perhaps because of my deep and enduring love for two of the men behind this show (Pappy’s Ben Clark and Tom Parry), I’m really sorry it’s been pulled after just one episode.

OK, it had awful reviews from both Chortle and Bruce Dessau, but one of the points was that the show had a different host each week, the first week being ex-Gogglebox and Jungler Scarlett Moffat who may be charismatic/charming to watch but isn’t a professional broadcaster.

The next episode was due to be presented by Jack Whitehall, who would perhaps have made a different fist of it.

OK, if a programme is terrible, axe it, but surely give it one series before doing so (anyone here old enough to remember the first series of Blackadder?) Comedy commissioners are terribly conservative as can be seen by the endless stream of panel shows and little else and they don’t give creatives any room to fail or grow. This results in terribly stagnant broadcasting.

The article below claims that the format was trying to build upon the success of shows like the wonderful Murder in Successville, but MiS was by no means an overnight success – it was a slow burner that’s gradually received critical acclaim.

The Beeb’s new comedy commissioner will hopefully invest a bit more time and confidence in supporting creativity, but for C4 it’s obviously a case of ‘one shot or you’re out’. Shame TV execs don’t realise that good comedy just doesn’t work like that.

 

Opinion: Did you hear the one about the dead hooker?

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Anonymous Contributor

 

We need to talk about dead hooker jokes.

I see a lot of comedy. I’m a comedy fan, a comedy reviewer and a comedy blogger. 

I’m also a sex worker. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that comedians, along with the general public, don’t expect sex workers to be present. We are invisible. If we’re considered at all, it’s like the shots you see in the press: a faceless woman on a dark street corner leaning into a car, one leg flicked coquettishly upwards; an anonymous entity.

In terms how the general populace views whores (incidentally, at this point in time, the word ‘whore’ is like the ‘N’ word, in that I’m allowed to use it but you’re not); we’re still in the dark ages. Imagine back to the time that Oscar Wilde was obliged to hide his sexuality in plain sight whilst being persecuted by the law and you’re getting close. I’ll save you looking up the year – that was back in 1895. 

122 years later, prostitutes, hookers, ladies of the night, courtesans, escorts and call girls (the term generally accepted these days is sex workers) are all still in a similar position socially. Why should comics be concerned with using us as a punchline; they wouldn’t think for a single minute that there was a one of ‘them’ in the audience. No one is wearing fishnet tights and a leopardskin coat with twenties bursting out of her bra, for God’s sake. I keep mine stashed in my knickers. 

So, I go to gigs. I laugh for the most part, and occasionally I cringe. Until you’ve been the repeated butt of the joke, you probably don’t notice that you’re being picked on, but comedy frequently has a target, and people tend to kick down. In the case of sex workers, we are two steps below human beings, one step below women and one step above rats. If you need confirmation of how mainstream this view has become, have a look at JK Rowling’s ostensibly feminist tweets about how it’s filthily misogynistic to call Theresa May a whore because surely there can be no worse insult. 

Sometimes, whorephobia (for that is the name of this phenomena, oh yes, we have a technical term for everything these days) emanates from ignorance. And you know what, ignorance is ok, everyone’s learning. We can’t all walk around being permanently aware of everyone’s finer feelings, especially in comedy where quick thinking is key to the job.

I was at a show a few months back when one of my favourites comics improvised a gag where he alluded to a ‘whore’ being a bitch or a slag. I cringed, as usual, but I enjoyed the rest of the show. The following day I tweeted the comic and explained my offence, he was contrite, apologised, and admitted that it was an off the cuff remark which, given more time, he likely wouldn’t have repeated. Fair enough. The problem is, most of the time, sex workers don’t speak up and identify themselves, for pretty obvious reasons. Stigma ensures that we remain invisible and thus allows us to still be the butt of the jokes. 

dead hooker
One of the memes tweeted out by the London Dungeon this year.

Sometimes people are not as keen to be called out. Last Valentines day, The London Dungeon tweeted a series of memes. The image above is one of the most appalling; which I assume was their desired intention. When they were taken to task about the nature of the campaign, they took the classic ‘I’m sorry if you’re offended’ line, which translates to ‘fuck off, we’re entirely unapologetic’.

Normally these instances cause a day of annoyance on twitter, and then we all move on. But recently, things got pretty damn serious. Firstly, an indoor sex worker was murdered in her flat a couple of miles from my house. Suddenly. this wasn’t such a funny punchline. Then today, I read a post by Janey Godley, a comic I greatly admire. She’s a no-holds-barred, straight down the line, smack-a-mens-rights-activist-in-the-face kinda gal, and I love her because she makes me feel not quite so alone in a scary world.

Janey was angry, and rightly so, at the horrifically misogynistic shit that gets hurled at female comics; particularly by stag parties. Sadly, Janey’s way of expressing her anger was to suggest that misogyny, violence and anger not be aimed at ‘women’, but instead be saved for that special breed of sub-woman, the hooker:

“I wish someone would open a huge stag strip bar in Glasgow so that the giant groups of angry men can go there and scream their hate at women and not come to comedy clubs…you are asking female comics to accept abuse because you can profit off a group of men whose mentality [was] so skewed they should’ve chipped in their money to hire a hooker and then killed her by taking turns kicking her up a dark alley…”

Even typing this turns my stomach. Janey is an ally, a good feminist. Sex workers are so peripheral on the vision of civil society that she thought it was OK to draw a parallel with nasty men being dicks to female comics at gigs (and I don’t doubt for one minute that they are horrendous, and it’s something no woman should have to suffer at work) with them instead expending their pent up woman-hatred by killing a prostitute.

I wrote to Janey and said as much, and although she didn’t reply, she did go on to amend her post to include the point that violence towards sex workers is not OK.

It’s a small concession, but I have an unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach that it’s a battle that’s far from being won.

I’m still not laughing.

 

This post is in remembrance of Romina Kalachi, 32, who was murdered at her home in Kilburn, London on May 29 this year. Police stated that she was targeted because of her profession as a sex worker. You can make a donation to Ugly Mugs, a national charity which works to protect sex workers, here.